Un-easy listening

DEREK TURNER tries translating Lingua Ignota

Radio 6 is one of the rare good things about the BBC, championing alternative, independent or overlooked pop and rock from the 1950s up to the present. On any evening of any week, you can hear anything from film scores to 1960s psychedelia, prog rock to trip-hop, industrial to African traditional, post-punk to ambient, English folk to early electronica. 

Some featured acts are household names, although R6 tends to play their less well-known repertoire. Other bands once launched to critical acclaim, but decades ago broke up for unviability, their personnel compelled to give up their guitars for jobs in insurance offices. New bands first heard here sometimes graduate (or deteriorate) to Radio 2 and mainstream success, but most will not, a single R6 airing perhaps their only hearing beyond Youtube channels, family downloads, or odd appearances in the fields of small and soon-forgotten festivals.

Melancholia surrounds some of this music – a sense of talents wasted, and energies expended uselessly ages ago – but much of it is likeable for its lack of self-pity, its performers clearly never caring what the mainstream might think, focusing solely on making sounds that satisfy them, or say something about the way they view(ed) the world. Much of this music is ergo striking, although much is not good. But every so often, a song comes on that is more than soundtrack to some activity – that makes you stop whatever you are doing, and just listen.

This happened for me last year, when I heard this. I stood in the middle of the kitchen with dishwater dripping from my hands, as Do You Doubt Me Traitor raised hairs on my nape. Even on a station which prides itself on un-easy listening, lines like “Every vein of every leaf of every tree is slaked with poison” and “I smell you bleeding” command attention – especially when delivered with a combination of soaring artistry and a voice vibrating with barely-controlled violence. In a world of singers showing their sores, this was clearly someone with something really to say, or shout about – and shout about with surpassing skill. “Your flag flies above every door” that voice went on vehemently, and ever since Lingua Ignota’s flag has flapped over mine.

Hildegard of Bingen’s secret alphabet

Lingua Ignota (“unknown language” – a term derived from the 12th century mystic Hildegard of Bingen, who devised her own secret alphabet) is Kristin Hayter, born 1986 in California. She is a classically-trained pianist and singer with three studio albums to her name – Let the Evil of His Own Lips Cover Him, All Bitches Die and Caligula – and an album of cover versions expected (she has previously covered, perhaps unexpectedly, Dolly Parton’s Jolene). She is involved with a kind of alt-supergroup, Sightless Pit, which released its first album Grave of a Dog in February, with such crepuscular song titles as Kingscorpse, Miles of Chain, and Whom the Devil Long Sought to Strangle.

Hayter’s music is uncompromising and unclassifiable – drawn up from choral and classical aquifers, updated with extreme metal, grunge, indie and noise, darkened by dreams and memories of lost faith and sexual violations. She writes, she says, “survivor anthems”, where The Well-Tempered Clavier meets Me Too, angst encounters anger, and a new revengeful genre struggles into guilty life.

Butcher of the World begins with Purcell’s plangent Funeral Music for Queen Mary, then suddenly late 17th century pain becomes early 21st century agony, as that already harrowing tune is lost and then found again amidst what can only be described as a wild howling. Albeit often wordless, the vocal line is the SOS of someone who is unusually articulate (she has degrees in fine art), but also feels more deeply than most. An epic self-pity that could be tiresome in less capable hands is transfigured into an epochal plaint – a plaint against bullies, betrayers, and ugliness, this West that’s gone wrong, this world without certainties.

An unknown language of a kind indeed, uttering unpalatable truths – feminist anthems (although she claims her songs are not feminist) and First World neuroses, but also wider existential longings, rising above sex into spirituality. She says Spite Alone Holds Me Aloft, but it seems more likely to be disappointed devoutness. Anger is essentially a short-lived emotion, requiring too much energy, and fundamentally unsatisfying.

Song titles resonate with Biblical notes, intended to be critical of Catholicism and certainly interpreted that way by fans, although perhaps they are less critical than they (or she) think – Faithful Servant Friend of Christ, Fragrant is My Many Flower’d Crown, O Ruthless Great Divine Dictator (which “embodies the hypocrite and the false prophet”), Holy is the Name (Of My Ruthless Axe) and I Am the Beast  (“Come claim me” she begs in this last, her vibrato especially desolating, like some song of desert sunrise). Is it patronising to feel a degree of pity for her – to hope one day she discovers peace (even at peril of stilling the startling music)?

There is a mystic of a very medieval kind (cf. Hildegard) beneath her thoroughly modern moroseness – an instinctive ecstatic inside the self-Hayter. When she stands on stages and hits herself to the titillated groans of the audience, she is a sort of stylite, lost in 2020’s equivalent of epidemic chorea or even, as she has said, an “exorcism”, during which she is a “conduit” of something infinitely bigger than herself. Some musicians are cynics, who stop gyrating as soon as they are out of sight of their audiences, but she seems wholly heartfelt, as if captured by complexes. When she comes off stage, does she, I wonder, feel curiously cleansed – as if she has just come out of one of childhood’s confession booths?

Kristin Hayter is by any standards a ‘difficult’ musician, alternative even in relation to other alternative artists. She will never get rich from her music, and her lingua is likely to remain ignota to many. But for others, what she sings with such skill and soul sinks in, and seems likely to stay.